Off the Path

“Whatever you do,” I call from the door, “don’t leave the path.”

Melanie looks at the carpet of blazing leaves to either side of her, then offers me a bemused smile. “No. Wouldn’t want to trample your verdant lawn.”

“It’s not that,” I say as I receive her from the stone path into my home, careful not to let my toes cross the threshold.

“Your house, your rules.” Melanie cuts off my explanation with an airy laugh. “And what a lovely house! You should have invited me ages ago.” She stops in the entryway and spins, her gaze resting on the door lintel where Jerrod carved our names the first month we lived here. “How have you been?”

As she tears her eyes from the names, I shrug. “I’ve been careful.”

Melanie studies me, then adopts a smile. “I thought after you show me my room, we could find someplace to eat.”

“No.”

“Darling, I’m the first to lay eyes on you in over a year. It’s not good for a girl to go so long unseen.”

“I have my reasons. Jerrod—”

“Jerrod wouldn’t have wanted you shriveling up in this house.”

“It’s not about what Jerrod would’ve wanted.”

Melanie’s mask lowers for a second. Fear flashes through those carefully controlled eyes. Then they soften. “Honey—”

“Please, spare me that tone.” I take a breath and calm my voice. “He left the path.”

“What?”

“I never told the police this, because I knew they’d go searching for him in the woods—off the path. People who leave the path die.”

“Darling, you know that’s not—”

“Jerrod knew that!” I realize my voice is shaking, that this is the first time I’ve said these things out loud. “Why?” I turn to Melanie with wide eyes. “Why would he do that to me when he knew the rules?”

“Because there are no rules, darling. You just…sometimes people just need to convince themselves there are because it softens the blow. My dear, I know this hurts to admit, but sometimes life goes wrong without a reason. We just have to move on with our lives. I know you can’t do that as long as you shut yourself away like this.” She fixes me with her gaze. “Do you honestly want to stay here?”

I don’t, but it’s not my decision. I can’t lie to Melanie, though. Not when she’s looking me in the eye like that. “No. I hate it.”

“Then it’s decided.” She drops her bags on the floor, and before I can resist she’s grabbed me and shoved me out the door. “Hey, look,” she exclaims. “You’re alive!”

I stand there rigidly, feeling the breeze on all sides of me for the first time in ages. Although my back is to it, I can sense the house looming over me, a dark presence in my mind. But Melanie is right; I’m alive. And the fresh air feels so good.

“Come on,” Melanie says, pulling my arm down the path. “I’m very hungry.”

I chew slowly, grimacing as I push the steak around with my tongue. “Overcooked,” I say as I finally work up the guts to swallow.

Melanie watches me over her salad. Her eyes dance across my face, examining it in the restaurant’s dim lighting. “Do you feel better, being away from that place?”

I set my fork down on my plate, but keep my knife. Its weight is comforting. “It’s not so much how I feel now that worries me. It’s what’s waiting for me back there.”

That’s just because you spent too much time cooped up in there. We don’t have to go back right away, you know. We can stay out as long as you like.”

I can’t help but smile. It feels like a weak effort, but it gets a reaction from Melanie in the form of an encouraging grin. “I do feel better,” I say. I glance at the knife in my hand, and quickly set it down on my folded napkin. “Right now, at least.”

“Of course you do,” Melanie says matter-of-factly.

I sigh. “Being away from there, I can finally stop thinking about all the rules.” A smile threatens to break through. “I can finally imagine, what if ghosts were real? What if Jerrod…no. Jerrod is gone. If there are ghosts, he wouldn’t be allowed to come back, not after breaking the rules like that.”

“Darling, don’t—”

“You think I made up those rules? I didn’t.” I shiver. Melanie looks worried. “When we bought the house, the man who owned it before practically gave it to us.” I rest my chin in my hand and gaze out the restaurant window. The image of a face, mouth opening to release a cascade of white sand, reflects off the glass in my imagination. My jawbone grinds against my skull as I go on, “He made Jerrod and I promise, to him and to each other, that one of us would be inside the house at all times. Jerrod would be at work during the day, and if I wanted to go out I had to wait for him to come home.” I sigh. “And we were never to stray from the path, never try to cut across its curves. Never explore the woods. Always stay on the path.”

I blink and the illusion in my reflection is washed away by tears. I use my napkin to dry my face and turn back to Melanie. “I had a dream, two nights after it happened.” Melanie is staring at me with eyes too sympathetic. I continue. “I sat up in bed—in the dream, that is—and looked out the window. There was something white hanging from a tree. I couldn’t tell exactly what it was, but…when I woke up, I knew Jerrod was dead. Dead because he left the path.” I stare at my unfinished soup, watching tiny yellow particles settle beneath its oily surface. “And now I’ve left the house empty.” I stand quickly, causing the silverware to rattle. “We should get back. Coming here was a mistake. I don’t know how I let you talk me into it.”

“I haven’t walked this way in so long.”

Melanie gives my hand an encouraging squeeze. She didn’t seem pleased when we left the restaurant, but I assume the ignorant girl’s trying to appreciate the small victory of getting me out of the house, if only for a couple hours. Now we’re approaching the house once more, having left Melanie’s car by the side of the road on the edge of the forest.

“Jerrod and I found this path leading into the woods,” I say, “little more than a deer trail. We followed it, and we found this fairy-tale house in the trees, made of dark stone and wrapped in ivy. Next thing I know, we’re walking down a cobblestone path that seemed to have grown up while I wasn’t paying attention, just like the trees that leaned in and grasped at the house as if to pull it apart. The path snaked through the trees, following anything but a straight line to the door. It never occurred to us to cut straight across. No, we were too enraptured by the magic of it. We spun our way back and forth, viewing the house first from one angle, then another, until I’d lost all sense of direction and only the house itself sat fixed in the middle of a spinning forest set aflame by the choking sun. I remember wondering how it had gotten so late.

“Then we reached the door, knocked just to be silly. We were shocked when it opened. The man was balding, short, older. He just stared at us for a while, and I thought there was a sound like crunching, like behind those sealed lips his teeth were grinding against themselves, breaking apart and disintegrating. I thought that if he opened his mouth, a cascade of white sand would pour out, with bits of tooth and bone mixed in.

“He invited us inside and told us about the house as if we’d already agreed to buy it. We asked if he was the owner; he said we had it backward. Said we could take his place if we were willing to accept the price. We asked what the price was, and he said to train up the child in the way it should go, so when it is old it will not depart…” I trail off, and add, “But this house is already old, isn’t it?”

Melanie and I have reached the door. My hand rests on it, feeling the splintering wood against the flesh of my palm. “I don’t want to go inside.”

Melanie places a gentle hand on my shoulder. “We don’t have to. Not yet.”

We sit on the front step as the sun goes down, and I continue my story. “We moved in that night. Didn’t go back to collect any of our things.”

“What? But how did you—”

“The old man said we didn’t need them. The house was fully furnished. We didn’t even have to go out for groceries.”

“But…” Melanie says, looking confused, “How do you eat?”

“There’s always meat in the basement.”

“Meat just…appears?”

“Every morning.”

“And you just eat it?”

I shrug. “It’s always fresh.”

“But you don’t know where it comes from? What it is?”

“It hasn’t hurt me yet. It would never hurt me, as long as…” I stand and grasp the doorknob, startling Melanie to her feet as I fling the door open. “Something’s…wrong,” I say, my voice barely squeezing through my constricting throat. I stand frozen on the threshold. The entryway greets me, and beyond the short hallway I can see the kitchen. I feel like I’m staring down the throat of a snake. “It’s all wrong.”

Melanie peers over my shoulder. “I don’t…what’s wrong?

“Everything. We shouldn’t have left.” I take a step inside, feeling the emptiness pull at me, feeling my clothes draw away from my skin. I place a hand on the wood paneling of the hall; it seems to recoil from my touch. I fancy I even hear the predatory growl of warping timber. My eye is hooked by a door to the right of the kitchen, unlatched, a sliver of darkness all that is visible of the basement.

“It seems the same to me,” Melanie says. “Honestly, if any of what you told me is true, then I think the old man you took the place from was batty.”

“You think I’m lying to you?”

“Just a figure of speech, darling.”

Behind us, night consumes the woods. I feel like the house has sucked in whatever light remained outside to fill its emptiness. I think about going upstairs, leaving the emptiness to itself to grow and mutate unattended. I think about Jerrod leaving the path, breaking the rules. I think about dying alone in my room.

“Would you mind if I shared your room tonight?” I ask Melanie.

Melanie smiles. “It’s your house. They’re all your rooms anyway.”

“Melanie,” I whisper.

She rolls over with a groan, and without opening her eyes says, “What?”

“Do you hear that?”

That is coming from outside Melanie’s room, across the upstairs hall. From my room. Small fiddling noises, an occasional footstep on the worn-out hardwood.

“That’s just the house settling,” Melanie says sleepily, rolling back to her original position.

“No it’s not. I’ve never heard anything like this before.”

“Because you’ve probably been asleep. As you should be now. As I should be, if you don’t mind—”

A new sound punctures the night. The snap and whine of creaking springs.

I grab Melanie’s shoulder. “That’s my bed!”

Melanie sits up and stares at the door. Neither of us say anything. The noise goes on, like metallic static, until there’s a loud thump. I jump and gasp, squeezing Melanie’s shoulder harder. I feel her go rigid under my grip.

A door slams, and a rapid pounding tears through the hall and down the stairs. It fades with distance, and continues fading until we can’t hear it anymore.

That morning I emerge from Melanie’s room, grateful for the sunlight that spills into the hall when I open her door. My door stands across from me, broad and tall and solidly shut. My clothes are clammy with dried sweat from the night. I need a shower and a change, but all my things are in my room, so I cross the hall in defiance of that door and open it, and then I’m screaming.

Melanie comes running up behind me. “What is it? Darling, what—” Her scream is stillborn, her mouth left to gape hollowly in surprise at the sound that never comes. “What is it?” she sobs when she finally finds her voice again.

“He left the path,” I say, tasting the salt of my tears as their warmth reaches my lips. “He left the path, and now I’ve gone and left the house empty.” I can feel the blood drain from my face into my toes until I must be as white as the thing hanging from the rafter above my bed. “I’m next,” I say. My legs are about to give out, so I preempt them and lower myself to the floor. “I’m next to die!

“Nobody,” says Melanie, grabbing my arm and pulling me back to my feet, “is going to die. We’re getting out of here, right now.”

She drags me away from the bedroom and its macabre ornament, down the stairs, to the front door. As we step out into the frigid dawn air, she says, “Some creep is messing with us. Broke in last night with a deer skeleton—”

“You think that was a deer?”

“Why else do you think they left out so many bones? If they had a human skull they would’ve left it there and really given us a fright.” She whips out her phone and starts to dial a number, but then I yank her back by her shirt collar. She chokes and nearly drops her phone.

“The path,” I say. She’d been about to step off it, cutting straight across the forest floor instead of following the meandering waves of the cobblestones.

“Give me a break,” she mutters, but she turns obediently and we wind our way through the leaves. Melanie dials her phone again, and a second later she says to someone on the other end, “Yes, I’m with a friend. Someone broke into our house and left something. We’re outside now, I don’t…no, I don’t know if he’s still inside or not. We’re just trying to get away.”

We round a curve as she starts trying to explain that the house doesn’t have an address, and that’s when I see it. At first the path ahead of us is empty. There is no fade, and no abrupt change. It’s as if we’ve come around some obstacle, that the black horse has always been there, and we’ve only just now noticed it. It gallops silently, coming toward us more slowly than it ought, given the speed with which it kicks its legs.

Melanie drops her phone, ending her 911 call with a crack. We both stare at the apparition, unable to speak. I notice it doesn’t have hooves. Instead it has hands as black as its fur. The pair in back are turned the wrong way, and all the fingers are splayed out with each beat against the stones, curling as the hand raises into the air, spreading as it slaps against the ground again. The fingernails are perfectly trimmed and smooth. The horse’s ebony mane billows toward us, reaching ahead like tentacles formed of coarse, snarled fibers. There is no tail.

I realize the wind’s kicked up without us noticing. The whispers of the rattling branches become roars. The forest is a cyclone of red blotches, like spots of blood dancing across my eyes. The dizzying patterns make the path undulate before my feet, but the nightmare remains steady, its charge relentless. Oh, the noise! A cosmic breath howls in my ears. Voices, yes, but not of the air or the trees or even Melanie, who screams to turn back and run for the house. Incomprehensible bellows swell from somewhere unknown, a language developed without concern for delicate, human ears that were never meant to endure it. Volumes above what I can take, pitches below what I can bear. All coursing over me, trampling me.

I realize I’m on the ground, crawling away from those slapping black hands. Melanie’s cry is wild. She reaches down to help me up, and together we careen back the way we came. We don’t dare stray from the path. Even Melanie refuses to cut a straight line through the leaves, her skepticism slain by the beast behind us. The apparition seems to follow the same rule, tracing every curve of the path with otherwordly precision.

I fall again as we trip over the front step. Melanie is too panicked now to help me, so I crawl the last few inches over the threshold. I turn one last time and see the horse, disturbingly close, then I silence the eldritch gale by slamming the door.

Melanie whimpers in the entryway. I whimper at the sudden silence. The house’s foreign emptiness yawns to embrace me. I know that, above us, in my bedroom, all that’s left of Jerrod hangs over my bed, swaying as the impact of the slamming door vibrates through the house’s skeleton.

“This is my fault,” I say. “I shouldn’t have left the house. Shouldn’t have left it empty.”

“That’s nonsense,” says Melanie. She’s holding her head and pulling her hair. “This is all just crazy.”

“It’s like a person.” Through my panic, clarity shines. Understanding. “We are the soul, and as long as we’re inside, there’s no room for anything else. But we left, and something else got in. Now we’re the intruders, and there’s no room for us.”

“Then why doesn’t it just let us go?”

I recall the words of the old man the day Jerrod and I took over. Raise up the child…but it’s already old. “It never learned compassion, and it never will.” My panic demands an outlet, which it finds in the form of a cynical laugh. “Old dogs and all that.”

“Deer, horses, and dogs,” Melanie groans. “It’s a detestable menagerie you have here, darling.”

I peer out the window by the door and see the path is empty. The wind seems to have died as well; nothing moves. “It’s gone,” I say.

“Should we make another run for it?” asks Melanie.

“It might be out there still, hiding.” I try opening the door anyway, but it won’t budge. The knob won’t even turn. I try harder, but my hand just slips off, banging against the wood. “I can’t,” I say, my heart pounding as it sinks.

Melanie shoves me aside and gives it a go. After a couple attempts, she shrieks and starts pounding on the door. “Let us out!”

“We should call for help,” I suggest.

“But my phone—” says Melanie. “Oh dear, my phone!” She looks out the window toward the place where she dropped it. I can see her lips quivering.

“I still have mine,” I say. “It’s…it’s in my room.”

“Then go get it!”

I swallow, then turn toward the stairs. As I climb I swear I can hear something creaking, a back-and-forth motion. I can’t help but imagine the string of vertebrae swinging, swinging, swinging; rock-a-bye Jerrod, all that is left, soon we might join you, spineless and dea—

I freeze and clap both hands over my mouth. My bedroom door is ajar, and everything is normal inside. The air above my bed is empty, the rafter naked. Melanie comes thundering up the stairs behind me. “Darling, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout—” She is silenced by the empty bedroom, but not for long. “Tell me you moved it. Please tell me you hid it someplace.”

“As if anyone could bring themselves to touch that thing.”

“Well someone did, and within the last couple minutes.”

I stare across the room at my nightstand. My phone sits there, a piece of modern plastic in the middle of this old-fashioned fairy-tale house. I creep forward, ignoring Melanie’s plea of “Wait!” My eyes rove from side to side, watching the corners for movement. I feel the floor beneath me, aware of its rough texture even through my socks. My toes grip the wood so hard they might rip the boards right up. Now I’m standing over the nightstand. My phone returns my gaze, seeming an alien technology in this house in the woods. Casting one last look at the farther edges of the room, I reach down and pick up the device. No sooner have my fingers closed around it than I’m skittering back to the hall where Melanie waits.

“Hurry,” she says as I begin dialing.

My fingers are shaking, and I fumble the number several times before getting it right. Raising the phone to my ear, I await the response—

Something is humming on the other end, low and organic. My jaw goes slack as I listen, and the fear that must coat my face is reflected in Melanie’s eyes.

“What is it?” she whispers.

I can’t respond. The humming is growing rounder, becoming a groan, rising. I can sense it snaking its way through the airwaves, infesting the phone’s circuitry and writhing through the wires. Yes, it’s coming, the noise just a prelude to something more tangible about to squeeze its way out of the speaker and into my ear. I hurl the phone away from me and it smashes against the wall.

“What did you do?” Melanie says, glaring at the wreckage. Twisting back to face me, she says, “That was our only chance for help! What did you do that for?”

The rest of the day is quiet. Melanie and I both try the front door several times, but neither of us can open it. Sometime late in the morning we realize we’re hungry. I say I’m going into the basement to fetch some meat. Melanie makes a face, but doesn’t argue.

As I approach the cracked basement door, I realize this is the first time I’ll have entered it since leaving the house yesterday. The first time since I found it inexplicably open. I pause on the top step, feeling like I’m about to slip down the long throat of a worm, and the stairs are the dull teeth lining its esophagus. Not much good for chewing; only grinding away slowly. The remnants of past meals are evident in the piles of dust that gather in the corners. The wooden teeth themselves are rotting, damp splinters protruding at vicious angles.

I descend carefully, practice telling me where it’s safe to place my stockinged feet. When I reach the stone floor below, I pull a chain switch I know is there by memory only and reveal the basement: a perfect, hollow footprint of the house above. The floor slopes gently toward the middle, hard to notice with the naked eye, but easily felt as my feet involuntarily draw me toward the round patch of dirt in the center. There the slope becomes obvious, spilling into a black hole.

On the edge of this pit, as if thrown up by a subterranean denizen, are two slabs of red meat. I pick them up with my bare hands; they are warm and slimy. I pause there, kneeling over the hole, and peer down. I can see nothing. Smell nothing but the blood in my hands.

The light flickers, startling me away from the bottomless pit. My tummy growls, and as I return upstairs I’m already biting off a chunk of raw flesh, savoring the metallic flavor and the slick ease with which each chewed bit slides down into my stomach.

I meet Melanie in the kitchen. She gasps when she sees me. I hold out her piece of meat, but she doesn’t move forward to accept it. She keeps staring at my mouth, my hands.

“Aren’t you hungry?” I ask.

“Not anymore.”

I shrug and drop her dinner on the counter. “It’s there if you change your mind.” I take another bite of my own, and hear Melanie make a strange sound somewhere between a moan and a whimper. “I think we should lock the bedroom door tonight,” I say. “I mean, I think it’s obvious we’re stuck here for now. We’ll need to take precautions.”

Melanie finally manages to tear her gaze from my food and says, “We haven’t tried breaking through a window.”

“Shut up!”

She steps back, eyes watering.

I tear off another chunk of meat and swallow it. “First of all, that would put us off the path. You don’t want to end up like Jerrod, do you? Secondly, we were supposed to take care of it. It’s a child—an old child, but a child, after all. You wouldn’t hurt a child, would you?”

“A child? It’s a stupid house—”

“I thought you liked it?”

“It’s a horrible house, and I’m ready to see it burned to the ground!”

I’m about to take another bite, but I stop. My hand drops slowly to my side, crushing the meat in a fist. Juice leaks out between my fingers. I hear it dripping on the kitchen floor.

“What’s wrong with you?” Melanie demands.

My grip on the meat loosens, and I calmly set it on the counter next to Melanie’s. “You’re right. I’m sorry.” I gesture toward the window over the sink. “Break us out.”

Melanie looks around for something to use. She finds the knife block and lifts it, tipping it so all the knives fall out before preparing to throw it at the glass. I come up behind her and stand there.

“What are you doing?” Melanie asks, looking over her shoulder at me.

“Nothing. Go ahead. The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”

She hefts the knife block and draws back. I stoop down to examine one of the knives on the floor. The motion catches her attention and she turns. “What…?”

“What’s the matter?” I say.

“Why don’t you give me some space?” She points to the far corner of the kitchen. “Go stand over there. And leave that here.”

I pause, my stained fingers toying with the stainless steel blade of a carving knife. I drop it and retreat to the designated corner. Melanie once more prepares to throw, but as she returns her attention to the window, the glass is plastered with leaves of every color, driven by a sudden wind. Melanie shrieks and drops her weapon. The leaves begin to shift, sliding away one at a time. I think I see something moving in the forest beyond them, but the view is still too obstructed to tell for sure.

“W-what’s going on?” Melanie says.

“Just the wind,” I reply, though I’m so quiet I’m not sure she hears me. “Just the wind, just the wind, just the…”

More leaves slip away. I can make out, vaguely, lashing tree limbs. Something obscures them now and then. A form cut away by the jagged edges of the leaves. The half-glimpsed motion is violent and dark. I feel just a few more liberated leaves and I’ll be able to tell what it—

The wind is gone, and the leaves fall away like marionettes whose strings have been cut. The forest is empty, its wrath exhausted. Whatever I saw, if I saw anything, is gone.

“It won’t let us go,” Melanie mumbles. She keeps facing the window, though all energy seems to have drained from her. Everything, from her head down, seems to be melting. “We’re trapped here. Trapped!”

We do end up locking the bedroom door that night. As soon as we’re shut in, Melanie goes and sits in the middle of the floor.

“Something wrong with the bed?” I ask.

“You can have it,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll be able to sleep anyway.”

I shrug before climbing into the bed myself and burrowing under the blankets. At first I lie on my back, staring at the ceiling. After several minutes, I roll over so I can see Melanie, still sitting in the middle of the floor. She’s facing the locked door, and appears to have no intention of even trying to sleep.

Somehow, knowing she’s likely to be awake all night keeps me from relaxing. I don’t like that I can’t see her face. I try to imagine her expression as she keeps watch, but all I can picture is an old face leaking white sand from the corners of its mouth. She’s sitting far too still, like a lone leaf suspended in the air while all its siblings get tossed about in the wind.

I roll over the other way, hoping if I can’t see her then Melanie’s eerie vigil won’t bother me so much. It helps. The room is cold but the blankets are warm. Melanie is quiet enough that I can almost pretend she isn’t even there, and soon I’m gone, pretending far stranger things in my dreams.

The warmth is gone when I wake up. So is the softness of the bed. I shift, groping for the blankets, and as my body moves against rough wood panels, I realize I’m lying on the floor. I must have rolled too far in my sleep, and the fall woke me up—

My eyes find the bed above me, perfectly made with the blankets hanging evenly on all sides. If I’d fallen, they’d be trailing over the edge in my wake. I run my hand over the top, confirming not a wrinkle in the fabric. After I fell—if I fell—someone…Melanie?

I turn toward where she’d been sitting.

Melanie is lying on her stomach with her head twisted grotesquely to one side. Her body convulses in regular spasms, and she seems always about to lift her eyes to meet mine. She never does, though. A moment later I realize why: a black something that looks like a perfectly shaped hand pressed against the back of her skull, holding it down. Where there’s one hand, there has to be another. I find it in the air above Melanie’s back, clenched around a thick, inflexible white cord. My gaze follows the cord down to Melanie’s body, and I realize with a rush of bile from my stomach what’s causing Melanie to convulse every time the raised hand tugs.

My eyes try to blur out the image, insisting that it’s something else. My ears tell a different story, though, as with a ripping sound Melanie’s spine tears free of her back.

I’m dizzy. The walls—those I can see before the room vanishes into the dark—spin around their three inhabitants. We remain rooted: myself, on the verge of fainting; Melanie, dead; and that other, the shadow in the shadows who now retreats, trailing behind it its grisly trophy. Merely a phantom on the edge of my vision, bloated and intangible, invisible in a matter of seconds. A matter of seconds is all that remains to me before the dizziness is too much and I pass out.

I wake to sunlight coming through the window, tinted orange by the forest outside. I’m still on the floor, and the first place I look is the bed. I think maybe I was confused last night. Maybe Melanie took the bed while I slept. Yes, that’s what happened, because the blankets are pulled up over a lump like someone sleeping, and everything else that happened was just a horrible dream.

I roll over to look the other way. The floorboards in the center of the room are stained with a drying smear that vanishes under the locked door.

My head is pounding as I sit up—or maybe its coming from the hall, something pacing back and forth. I think that I really saw it last night, that it really happened. That whatever murdered Melanie is out there now, impatient for me to be awake so it can do something.

“Darling, are you up yet?” says Melanie’s voice from beyond the door. “I’ve made breakfast.” The pacing is faster now. It sounds barefooted and too many. Melanie only has two feet, so I know it can’t be her. And besides, she’s dead. I’m pretty sure by now that what’s in the bed is her spineless corpse. But then, what about that smear, glowing in the morning light—

“Hurry up, will you! I’m hungry!” This last statement is punctuated by a slap against the door. Then there’s this scraping noise, something rubbing against the outside. It sounds slightly wet. “Darling,” Melanie says, her voice low and teasing, “if you don’t come out, I’ll have to come in.”

She can’t come in. The door is locked.

“I said. I’m. Hungry.”

I stare at the door, knowing that’s not Melanie on the other side, knowing I don’t want her coming in, knowing that the only way to stop her is to go out, and to do that I have to walk through the reddish brown smudge and unlock the door myself.

A deep groaning noise comes from outside, and as it rises to something shrill I realize it’s Melanie screaming. The doorknob rattles and the door itself clatters against its frame. Then it stops. The hairs on my arms feel like cold needles pricking my skin. Something moves behind me, shifting the blankets on the bed. I’m afraid to take my eyes off the door, but I can’t keep my back to this other threat any longer. I turn just in time to see the comforter slide off the black mane of a horse’s head. The horse doesn’t have eyes, just empty sockets.

“You should have opened the door.” It’s a perfect impersonation of Melanie’s voice, but made unrecognizable by passing through the lips of a beast. Long, shard-like teeth gnash the words as they come out. An ebony, but otherwise perfectly human, hand tugs the remainder of the covers off, revealing the rest of the nightmare’s body. It pulls itself out of the bed and stands before me on its four hand-feet.

I hear a click behind me. The door has swung open, revealing an empty hallway. I choke back a cry as I see the outside of the door is stained with blood.

“Come with me,” the horse-thing says. It extends one of its hands toward me. “I’ll show you Jerrod’s bones.”

With a scream I run from the room. I smell the door as I rush by; it stinks like the meat from the basement. I swallow vomit before racing through the hall and down the stairs. Without thinking, I make for the front door. It opens easily. I wonder at this briefly, but there’s little time for confusion. I’m only a few steps down the path when I see it, just like yesterday, charging toward me. Slap-slap-slap-slap, slap-slap-slap-slap.

It won’t let me leave. I realize as the horse grows larger in my vision. I stagger backward, and run into the door, now closed. I’d left it open, or had I? In my panic I can’t remember. I can only reach back, my eyes glued to the apparition, and fumble with the doorknob.

It won’t budge.

My sweaty palm slips off the knob as I struggle with it. My breath is choked off. I’m trapped between the nightmare, a locked door, and the out-of-bounds ground on either side of the path. No other options, no escape. The black, muscled form of the apparition bears down on me, so close it fills my field of view. I can make out individual hairs on its chest like glistening spider legs. Then my body wrests control from my mind. Before I can even ponder the danger, my legs have thrown me into a dive. The horse slap-slap-slap-slaps past, and I land in the leaves—off the path.

Immediately, all noise is silenced. I lie there for a moment, dry points of forest debris poking into me, a loamy, rotten scent coating my nostrils. At first I can’t believe what just happened, then the significance really hits me. I stare at the stone path, within easy reach but so far away because for the first time I’ve left it and all I can think is that I’ll finally find out what happened to Jerrod and it’ll be the last thing I ever find out before I die.

I left the path!

I slowly return to my feet, and as I do I happen to look up.

Oh no.

They’re hanging from the trees, hundreds of them. All swaying, occasionally knocking against each other. Strings of vertebrae held together by frayed twine.

“Jerrod,” I whisper.

I tear my eyes away and see the fiery leaves around me fading to brown flakes. The path, once my way of safety, dissolves like mist. All that remains are dead trees and my house, if I can even call it that anymore. As I watch, the masonry turns black, the encasing ivy shrivels and falls away, the windows cloud over. I don’t know where I am anymore, but the vanishing of the path means I can’t go back. Still, some desperate part of me has to try, so I return to the house. Maybe if I go inside everything will be normal again.

The door opens this time. Not surprising. The wood is so worm-eaten I probably could have kicked it down. As soon as I cross the threshold, I know it’s not the same. Nothing is. Of course not. I left the path, just like Jerrod. Jerrod never came back, and I haven’t either. It’s like I fell into the house’s shadow and found myself lost in its dark mirror. To confirm my theory, I check the lintel over the door. No carved names mar the rotting woodwork. In fact, I can find none of the little touches that made the house mine. This place, whatever it is, has never been lived in. It’s not a place for living. It’s a place for—

“You haven’t had breakfast yet,” says Melanie’s voice. But now there’s something else layered underneath, something masculine, and I hate the creature for distorting Jerrod’s voice by mixing it up with someone else’s. “Why don’t you fetch some meat from the basement?”

My eyes jump down the hall to the basement door just in time to see a human hand—a human hand, not black, but adorned with a familiar wedding ring—slide down the stairs.

It can’t be him. He’s dead. Of course, I’m not entirely sure I’m not dead myself, although I think if I was I wouldn’t be scared for my life like I am now.

I go to the top of the stairs and look down. Nothing. No Jerrod, no hand. Still, I have to know for sure. If there’s even a chance that I’ll find even a piece of Jerrod down there…I start the descent. My feet play a hesitant a beat against the steps: Tap, tap, tap. Halfway down an awful, metallic stink greets me. I’m reminded of all the mornings I came down here to fetch some meat for breakfast. Tap, tap, tap. I come to the bottom, and turn on the light. The basement, unlike the rest of the house, is exactly as I remember it. Nothing has changed here. Still, I pause, taking in the scene. Stone floor sloping gently toward the center, giving way to dirt as the slope increases, terminating in a black pit.

Tap, tap, tap.

On the far side of the pit, almost beyond the reach of the trembling light, lies a pale shape. It blends into the darkness, and my eyes are too weak to discern the true nature of its form. My heart, though, beats a syllabic rhythm, sending the echoes of his name rattling through my bones.

Behind me, something provides a counter rhythm of tap, tap, tap.

It stops almost the instant I recognize it. My ears buzz as they try to pull clues from the air. There’s something, some unconscious drone of presence. I turn, slowly, expecting to find a horse’s eyeless face staring at me.

Instead I find Melanie’s face grinning from the end of a horse’s long, black neck.

I stumble away from the horrific image, and as I do Melanie begins speaking with Jerrod’s voice.

“You broke the rules, darling. You set me free. Thank you.” It advances, matching the pace of my retreat. “You look hungry. Why don’t you eat something?” It raises one of its black hands and points over my shoulder.

I can’t take my eyes off the monstrosity. Melanie’s face looks squashed and distorted as her grin twitches. The thing takes a few more steps forward, I take a few more steps backward. “Darling, you should look where you’re going.”

At that moment, my back foot slips and I fall forward. The slope. The pit. I cling to the stone floor as my feet kick against the dirt, but there’s no traction. Melanie smiles down at me as my fingers lose their strength. I can feel cold air beneath me, and I recall all the times I peered down into that hole, seeing nothing but darkness, wondering where the meat came from. I find myself wondering what became of the rest of Melanie’s and Jerrod’s bodies.

Horse-Melanie’s grin widens, showing horse teeth growing out of human gums. My fingers finally fail, and I slide down the dirt slope and into the abyss.

James Colton

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